Liam Neeson's 'The Grey' is a mostly satisfying action film

Liam Neeson's 'The Grey' has exciting fight sequences, but sometimes overextends itself.

Kimberly French/Open Road Films/AP
From left, Dallas Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Liam Neeson, and Nonso Anozie are shown in a scene from 'The Grey.' The film successfully sustains tension throughout but is thin on character development.

When stylized action director Joe Carnahan (The A-Team and Smokin’ Aces) began preparing a no-holds barred man-versus-nature film in the wilds of Alaska, more than a few cinephiles scratched their heads.

Then, when word began to spread that Carnahan’s dramatic thriller film, titled The Grey, was being positioned as Oscar-bait for star Liam Neeson, while at the same time promising an intense and “horrific” survival story, potential moviegoers began to take serious note.

It’s easy to see how The Grey collaborators ultimately affected the final onscreen result – as the film excels in a number of ways (tense and gripping life or death scenes as well as a noteworthy performance from Neeson) but also falls short in several others (such as character development). While plenty of filmgoers enjoyed Carnahan’s A-Team and Smokin’ Aces, there’s no doubt that the over-the-top tone of those films would have been out of place in The Grey. As a result, it’s encouraging to see the director stretch his comfort zone a bit – even if the final result isn’t flawless.

The Grey follow the story of John Ottway (Liam Neeson), a deeply depressed hunter-guard at an isolated oil refinery in Alaska. Ottway is a rough around the edges type who spends his days traversing the perimeter of the refinery killing wild animals that, if unchecked, could threaten the plant’s various workers. That is, until Ottway and an entire plane full of refinery employees (en route to Anchorage for leave) crashes in the middle of the Alaskan wilds. While most of the passengers die instantly in the crash, a few survivors emerge from the wreckage – only to discover that not only are they going to have to fight the elements to reach safety alive, they’re being hunted by a pack of ruthless and unrelenting wolves. While a few of the men are initially skeptical of Ottway, the group ultimately agrees to follow him away from the plane wreckage and into the elements – in the hopes of finding safety.

As a result of the isolated locale, The Grey is a combination of character-focused exchanges as well as chilling and intense nature/wolf action encounters. Unfortunately, as with other Carnahan projects, the character moments are somewhat of a mishmash. There are numerous standout opportunities for Neeson and other actors, such as Frank Grillo (Diaz) to shine but, aside from a few primary characters, most of the other survivors are presented with thin (and even manipulative) emotional padding. While there’s no doubt that audiences can “explain away” some of the filmmaker’s attempt to humanize other survivors, it’s obvious that Carnahan had quick and dirty go-to solutions for investing viewers in each person – i.e. this one will have a kid, etc. Even though there’s a lot of time spent on character backgrounds, with the exception of Ottway and Diaz very few of the survivors are anything more than The Grey‘s version of potential (no spoilers) “Red Shirts.”

That said, a lot of moviegoers will likely find that certain characters and their various interactions are ultimately enough to carry the film – at least from action set piece to action set piece. Neeson offers his usual subtle but likable intensity – whether attempting to rally his fellow survivors into conquering the elements or stamping out insurrections. While Ottway is still a pretty straightforward character, Neeson’s portrayal coupled with some compelling (but not overdone) flashback material, makes him a worthwhile focal point for the unfolding events.

However, it’s those unfolding events that truly make The Grey a riveting moviegoing experience. While survival experts and especially outdoorsy types will likely be able to poke holes in a number of the man versus nature scenarios depicted in the film, any potential inaccuracies aren’t likely to affect regular viewers. Maybe ignorance is bliss?

For the rest of us, The Grey presents a number of unique and equally tense set-pieces for the survivors to encounter – keeping the tension up without simply watching the wolves take down one survivor after another. The wolves are definitely responsible for a lot of carnage in the film (a controversial depiction itself); however, their overarching function in the story is to keep the survivors moving – forcing less-capable characters into dangerous life or death scenarios. Without listing (and spoiling) the set-pieces, it’s fair to say that Carnahan definitely utilizes a variety of potential challenges the survivors would face in the Alaskan wild – leading to a couple of truly intense moments.

Between the (sometimes thin) character interactions and the riveting action set-pieces, Carnahan also injects a number of philosophical ideas (about death, love, and nature) that may entice some moviegoers, but most of which are never entirely wrapped up in a way that makes the added effort really sing. As a result, the end of the film itself could be somewhat of a sore spot for audiences – as certain elements of the finale are earned, while other aspects are jumbled together without any real payoff.

The Grey is ultimately at odds with itself – and at times, over-extends its reach. Fortunately, even if there are problems, Carnahan’s ambitions help The Grey be a better film than his earlier efforts. Another noteworthy performance from Liam Neeson keeps most of the character moments engaging (in spite of thinly formed supporting roles) and the man versus nature scenario offers a number of memorable set-pieces (even if the director chose compelling action over uncompromising believability from time to time). The Grey might not be the next Alive – but there’s no doubt it raises the bar for future character-driven survival thrillers.

Ben Kendrick blogs at Screen Rant.

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